Hiero’s Journey by Sterling E. Lanier was published in 1973, and is a post-Apocalyptic fantasy novel taking place 5,000 years after “The Death” – an all-out nuclear and biological world war. Within it, Hiero Desteen (destined hero?) is a priest (cleric?) who has psychic powers, traversing a changed landscape in search of a computer (!) to help defeat the Unclean and their leemutes (corrupted from lethal mutations, now meaning any mutation inimical to mankind).
Along the way, Hiero assembles a party of adventurers including a telepathic bear, a riding moose (called a “morse”), a female warrior (and love interest), and an “Elevener” who seems an awful lot like a druid. The Eleveners are members of the “Brotherhood of the Eleventh Commandment”, which is that “Thou shalt not destroy the Earth or the life thereon.”
If this all sounds a lot like TSR’s AD&D or Gamma World to you, you’re not alone!
Hiero Desteen is travelling on his morse, Klootz, seeking a computer for his church, the Kandan Universal Church. The Church is opposed by the Unclean, humans who seek to use the knowledge that brought about the Death for their own ends, and who make common cause with mutants inimical to man. Over the course of his journey, he must fight the Unclean (and escape from their capture), defeat strange creatures, make new allies, traverse the vast and hostile marshes known as the Palood, and explore the ruins of the ancients.
The novel is described as “A Romance of the Future”. And it all takes place around the Great Lakes, which are now the Inland Sea, from post-Apocalyptic Canada to the massive jungles around modern-day Indiana. Naturally.
Elements for Gaming
This book is chock full of gaming elements, and it is easy to see how Gary Gygax was inspired by it. Living in one of the Great Lakes states himself (flooded by the Inland Sea by the time of Hiero’s Journey), Gary must have felt some level of kinship with the landscape Hiero passes through.
Here we have the seed of the cryptic alliances of Gamma World, the prototype of the Hool Marshes in Greyhawk, auguries being cast (and enigmatic answers being given), humanoid alliances against men, clerics in leading roles, psionics, intelligent animals, and some weird creatures that defy natural explanation. We also have a truly dangerous fungal entity (House) and its attendant slimes….the abilities and descriptions of which seem familiar from Gary’s work in the Monster Manual and the Monster Manual II. If you want to know why giant lynxes are intelligent in the Monster Manual, the answer is probably the influence of this book.
This is the first novel I have read where the protagonist actually defeats a foe and levels up. Seriously.
He was amused that his new confidence seemed more than temporary. Beyond, and indeed underlying, the amusement was a hard-won feeling of mental power. Hiero knew, without even wondering how he knew, that Abbot Demero or any others of the Council would now be hard-put to stand against him...The two battles Hiero had won, even though the bear had helped decide the first, had given the hidden forces of his already strong mind a dimension and power he would not himself believed possible. And the oddest thing was, he knew it.
Tired, but feeling somehow wonderful anyway, he roused Gorm and the morse.
That's right. By fighting combats and defeating opponents, Hiero has become more powerful. He is aware of the increase in power, and, although tired (i.e., not at full hit points?) he feels "somehow wonderful anyway" (perhaps because he gained hit points with the new level)?
Interesting. Especially as it predates the game whose mechanics emulate it nearly perfectly. Nor is this the only time Hiero “levels up” after an encounter; using the Dungeon Crawl Classics rpg experience system (where you gain XP for encounters whether you defeat them or not) emulates the novel even better.
Another interesting note is how episodic the novel feels. While it is a single story, the story seems to be a number of “adventures” that comprise the whole. Hiero, Gorm, and Klootz form the initial adventuring party, encountering the Unclean. Then they traverse the Palood as a separate adventure. The warrior, Luchare, is rescued and joins the party as a third adventure. Hiero has a solo go, being captured and then escaping (I guess the other players couldn’t make that session). The reunited party goes through a half-drowned Ancient city (and fights what may well be bullywugs) before encountering a new party member, Brother Aldo. They take a ship across the Inland Sea toward the place Hiero has been sent to investigate, acquiring several new PCs and NPC hirelings. The ship is wrecked, and the new PCs go through a sort of 0-level funnel in the jungle. The group deals with some female forest dwellers (who mate with the male party members in dreams) and then explore the underground multi-level complex of the Ancients.
Along the way, they gain several artefacts from the Unclean, some of which are (or might as well be) cursed; including devices that allow the Unclean to track the group.
Encounter-wise, this novel is rich indeed. Simply reading the Glossary in the back offers a number of interesting ideas for game play, and it is by no means complete.
Gorm, the telepathic bear: In rpg terms, clearly a PC, but not one anyone could choose to create. Using the Dungeon Crawl Classics rules, the judge could allow special character types to arise as part of specific adventures. i.e., if you play this particular adventure, you might gain a unique PC not available otherwise. I think this is a good solution to the problem posed initially by the 1e Unearthed Arcana and then later (and more strongly) by 3e – gamers want those unique PC types in their game, but if they become part of the standard generation process, they are no longer unique.
(As an aside, it is interesting to note that my players encountered Growly, from The Ooze Pits of Jonas Gralk, shortly after I had finished this novel, thus giving me a template to describe the Fez-toting empathic dancing bear. Similarly, the great swamp around the Sunken City reminds me of the Palood...another useful reference for creating encounters in Purple Sorcerer’s setting!)
Morse: Large empathic riding moose. How this didn’t appear in Gary’s monster books is beyond me, because it is a cool idea that certainly fits in with Appendix N gaming.
House: A giant, intelligent fungus, the section with House in it might as well be the base template for all slimes, molds, and fungi in the original D&D game, were it not for other fungus monsters appearing in other Appendix N literature. With its “harem”, House might be the model for Juiblex or Zuggtmoy.
The Dweller: A mental parasite that comes from beyond this world, let into it by the changes the Death have wrought. This would be a great encounter for any rpg, where battle takes place on the mental plane, rather than the physical. There are actually several mental battles in the novel (it is easy to see its influence on psionics in Dungeons & Dragons), but this is probably the best of them.
Other Creatures: There are far too many monsters described in this book for each to be given a line-by-line listing. They include giant otters/weasels, wolverine men, the dam people (intelligent giant beavers), colossal giant frogs, giant leeches, giant snapping turtles, a giant loon, anthropomorphic ape-men (howlers), giant fish, giant gulls, man-rats, and a host of other monsters.
It is interesting to note how many of the Appendix N works are actually science fiction, or have science fiction elements. For its contributions to role-playing games, Hiero’s Journey is sort of a must-read for fans of D&D, Gamma World, or their later-day clones and derivatives. It is pretty obvious why Gary Gygax included this one in Appendix N, and it is a novel that he listed by name.
I enjoyed the novel, although I am told that its sequel, Unforsaken Hiero, is not as good. I am not sure, as I have not read it (yet). Sterling Lanier had intended to make the series a trilogy when he penned the second, but his death prevented the completion of a third Hiero novel.
Reading this novel will give most GMs a lot of good ideas for monsters and encounters, especially if they don’t mind mixing science fiction and fantasy. If you can get it at a reasonable price, you should.